I was trying to compare Anita to an American designer, but with her four collections, almost 200 free standing stores (and hundreds of other retail accounts), I honestly couldn’t think of anyone here with that much impact. And it’s rather embarrassing, but I will admit, I had never heard of her. With Anita Dongre‘s recently opened store in NYC’s SoHo, she will become more familiar to those of us out of the loop. The main floor of her new boutique is dedicated to Anita’s Grassroot collection, which consists of pieces that highlight weaving, embroidery, dyeing and other techniques that are central to different villages in India. Anita is determined to keep these ancient crafts alive, help sustain people’s livelihoods and update these traditions into modern day interpretations that speak across continents.
While the store houses her other, more classical core collection, my second favorite is the wedding/event area upstairs. There is nothing more stunning than an Indian wedding dress and you should go just to gawk at the dresses laden with silver thread embroidery, beading and other embellishments. The rainbow of delicate to saturated shades they come in are stunning. Can you imagine having a turquoise wedding dress? And because Anita loves jewelry (I once went to a traditional Indian wedding and the jewelry on the guests alone was eye-popping), there are both a fine and and an affordable jewelry line. I had the chance to sit down with Anita the day after her store opened.
How long have you been in business and sort of what was your path to becoming a designer? I’ve been in fashion for over 30 years now and graduated from fashion school when I was 21. That’s all I’ve done since then. It’s always been my passion.
How has it sort of evolved over the years? The business has grown larger and what I do now is at a much larger level. But I think right from when I started out from college to what I am today, my style has remained unchanged. I always enjoyed working with Indian textiles and prints even way back then and I still enjoy the same now.
I think today there is a need to save the work that artisans are doing in India because somewhere over the last few years with modernization and industrialization everybody’s been producing fabrics in large mills, so a lot of hand loom, you know where we weave by hand or embroider by hand, that craftsmanship is being lost and artisans do not have the kind of work that they did in the past. I think what India and the design and fashion world need to do is to work towards revival of our crafts.
India has amazing history of craftsmanship. Why do you think that is? It’s our legacy. Craft is practiced in every home in India. It changes from region to region, it changes from state to state. India is a very diverse country. We speak so many languages. You travel a few hundred kilometers and the way the people dress changes, the food changes. Similarly with the craft. And craft is practiced in every Indian village. It could be hand embroidery, it could be weaving, it could be so many skills that always pass down from mother to daughter or father to son.
Today craft can become a very important source of livelihood in villages. It can make villages a sustainable unit. It can prevent these craftspeople, because of some times of not having enough economic opportunities in the village, from migrating to cities. Just taking craft back to the village has a huge overall effect on making the village a sustainable unit.
It would seem to me that Indian people take a great pride in the way they dress. American’s are so….we’ll put on jeans and a white T-shirt and be very happy.
Or New Yorkers in all black.
What do you think that comes from? Because we have such a history, a legacy of costume. Costume changes from every region in India and I think it’s very important that we hold on to that. I mean it’s changing now. In cities in India also we are dressing like the West. I mean I wear a dress, and I wear jeans, and I dress like a New Yorker. But at the same time, I definitely want to dress in my traditional Indian costume. And I do balance both worlds. But I think in villages it’s important we continue retaining our traditional costumes otherwise the world is going to become one big boring place where everyone dresses the same and we certainly don’t want that.
You met the two artisans here. They’re so beautifully dressed. These are outfits that are beautiful and they must continue to live on. It’s so important to maintain the cultural sanctity of each place, not the whole world becoming one, global, lookalike place.
What made you want to open a store in New York? I’d always wanted to bring Grassroot to New York because I think it’s important that the world recognizes the beauty of Indian craft. Then there were a lot of brides, Indians, who live in the US and were shopping with me in India who kept saying that it’s really difficult for us to make the trip all the way to India and that we really should have something here.
And the jewelry, you design…. I love jewelry, just like any other woman. I wanted to do jewelry for many years, especially after I started the bridal line. Every time I was doing my photo shoots, I wanted jewelry to coordinate with the clothes because when you imagine a bride you really imagine the whole look. The jewelry line is done in Jaipur and I am from Jaipur and my whole inspiration is from Rajasthan and the bridal line is also produced in Jaipur, Rajasthan. So jewelry was just a natural extension, it had to be.
Do you have any other plans to add anything else to the collection? Right now, I’m very old.
You do not look very old. (She’s not.) Planning the next collection is taking my life away.
You’re obviously the Donna Karan of fashion in India but Americans are just getting introduced to your name. What do you want them to think when they come here and shop? To buy into the Anita Dongre aesthetic, which is just beautiful, feminine clothes. And Grassroot has a purpose behind it and to support that purpose.
What do you love most about your job? The creative. Thinking of a design and then being able to execute what’s in your mind. And that impatience to make it happen. It takes ages sometimes but when you conceive something and then to slowly see it coming alive. That’s the fun part.
What inspires you? India. It’s so huge. I travel a lot in India. I always say I’m fortunate and blessed to be born in India because you can’t be born in India and say you lack inspiration. That would be foolish. It’s the land of inspiration. I mean it’s inspired designers from all over the world. As an Indian I’m proud of it.